In today’s internet age, we increasingly live, work, and play within the online world. The internet is a hub of modern commerce, education, and interpersonal connectivity, and it offers a wealth of opportunities for individuals and economies across the planet. Given the global importance of the internet, the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December 2017 to dismantle regulations regarding “net neutrality” is particularly alarming. This article offers a bit of the background behind the net neutrality regulations and highlights several of the main reasons why it is essential to protect.
A Brief History
Though the internet itself just passed its 25th birthday in 2016 (it was officially launched 6 August 1991), net neutrality protections are much more recent. As a result of the exponential growth in internet users, and the advancement of applications such as online shopping or online universities, the FCC declared in 2015 that the internet should be considered a public utility that is free and open to the public. Though consumers still pay for their internet service provider (ISP), the basis of the net neutrality regulations was to ensure that there would be universal access to the internet, regardless of the websites or content sought. In other words, net neutrality regulations allowed us to use the internet as we wished without those ISPs, such as AT&T or Comcast, to charge us depending on where our internet searches took us. The dismantling of these net neutrality regulations in late 2017 means that such protection is no longer in place.
In turn, this means that ISPs can now serve as the gatekeepers to the internet and charge differently depending on what sites you wish to visit. Think of it as similar to a cable television package: cable providers offer different rates depending on what channels you want to see. Some channels are less expensive; others cost more. With net neutrality regulations destroyed, ISPs can concoct a similar packaged price for our access to popular websites, such as YouTube or Facebook, or can block access to websites altogether. While this means the potential for more profits for the major ISPs, it also can result in a wide variety of problems for the average internet consumer.
One of the biggest boons of the internet age has been the cultivation of start-ups across industries. The financial barriers to a business’ creation are greatly diminished online as opposed to starting a physical storefront. This is because virtual retailers or companies have only had to pay the minimal price for a website domain, server space, and so on. However, with the demise of net neutrality, ISPs can now charge these companies merely to reach their subscribers. This might be a price easily consumed by larger corporations or well-established organizations, but for start-ups operating on shoestring budgets, this expense could ultimately become too prohibitive. Thus, the demolition of net neutrality could prove harmful to new and small businesses.
Another risk associated with the loss of net neutrality is the damage it could inflict on the realm of education. This is a possibility heightened with the potential for ISPs to divide the internet into price-segmented “lanes”: a “fast lane,” the fastest internet (with the most bandwidth) for those who are willing pay a premium; and a “slow lane,” diminished speeds (less bandwidth) for those who cannot afford to pay more. This division of service could complicate education when one considers the rise in online education platforms and the need for engaging content for the virtual classroom. Many online students today rely on video conferencing, lecture streaming, or other multimedia online content to enrich and enlighten their educational experience, but these elements require substantial broadband access. What this means, then, is that without the protections of net neutrality students might be forced to pay more for their internet access merely to pass their classes.
The real damage that the dissolution of net neutrality regulations inflicts is the dramatic inequality it can foster among our population. The ability for the major ISPs to control how we access our internet will result in our loss, and that loss will be felt particularly harshly among the segment of our population who just cannot afford to pay up. As a brief foreshadowing of what is in store without net neutrality in place, here are some figures to consider: according to Fortune magazine, the average American cable bill topped $100 per month in late 2016. In 2017, Forbes magazine revealed the average American broadband internet bill was almost half that amount ($66.17). American families shouldn’t have to double their monthly internet expenditure; businesses shouldn’t have to fight for an online presence; students shouldn’t have to scrimp on their education. We need net neutrality.
Niall McCarthy, “The Most and Least Expensive Countries for Broadband.” Forbes, 22 November 2017.
Aaron Pressman, “The Average Cable TV Bill Has Hit a New All-Time High Record.” Fortune, 23 September 2016.